Saturday 1 November: We meet a comrade from the new revolutionary group lately established in France, Voix des Travailleurs, to talk about the subjects up for discussion at VDT’s general meeting on Sunday. The meeting will consider a draft of a programme for revolutionary unity. As usual in France, the discussion is in a cafe over cups of coffee. It’s a different culture from the British chat-in-a-pub. We comment on the draft’s call for, “a democratic government of the workers and their organisations,” an idea not heard from the French revolutionary left for many years. Yes, the comrade says, we’ve been re-reading Trotsky’s writings on France from the 1930s and re-thinking a lot of issues.
Sunday 2 November: To the VDT meeting. Cause again to reflect that British revolutionaries could learn a lot from the French in political culture and ways of doing things. Seven revolutionary groups (including the AWL) have been invited to send speakers. They all speak constructively and to the point, and the attention of the 150 activists packed into the meeting hall does not flag for the whole six hours of the meeting.
True, the three biggest French groups aren’t there: the “mainstream” neo-Trotskyist LCR, Arlette Laguiller’s organisation Lutte Ouvriere, and the “Lambertist” Parti des Travailleurs — though minorities from LO and LCR do attend. Yet the LCR and LO have a much better record of debating their ideas openly and honestly than do groups like the SWP and the Socialist Party/Militant in Britain, with their pretence that they alone are “the” socialists and that they need take no account of the ideas, activities, or even existence of other groups. Here, only the notoriously self-obsessed “Lambertists” have that approach.
The biggest debate at the meeting — as at so many other Trotskyist meetings for decades past! — is on the Russian Question. The draft is tentative on this question. “We have not found it necessary to modify the fundamental characterisation which Trotsky gave in his time of the state of Soviet society [as a “degenerated workers’ state”]… But the entry of Russia into the G7 (becoming G8) could well signify symbolically the liquidation of the little which may still survive from the transformations made by the revolution of 1917.”
Some comrades are unhappy with the clear indication that VDT is on the way to dropping the “degenerated workers’ state” position maintained for so many decades — and defended as an imperative “moral choice” — by Lutte Ouvriere, the movement from which the core of VDT was expelled earlier this year. Others, on the contrary, believe it is absurd to call Yeltsin’s Russia any sort of workers’ state. Both say that the “symbol” of G7 entry cannot be a decisive criterion. The meeting agrees to continue the discussion in writing.
The most interesting contribution, it seems to us, is from the minority faction of Lutte Ouvriere. Their speaker says that any proper revolutionary programme today must be based on analysis of three major developments since the classic works of Trotsky: the Second World War, the survival and expansion of Stalinism, and post-war capitalism.
Despite Lutte Ouvriere’s tremendous merits in many fields — Arlette Laguiller got 1.6 million votes as their presidential candidate in 1995 — they have always insisted on keeping the basic scheme of the world from Trotsky’s writings up to 1940 as the “frame” for all their analyses: the USSR is a degenerated workers’ state, China and Eastern Europe are capitalist, imperialism makes any real economic development in the Third World impossible, etc. In discussions in the mid-1970s, one of their leaders explained it like this: Trotsky’s writings educated a generation of militants. Since Trotsky’s death the various neo-Trotskyists have added nothing but a pile of waste paper. The least we can do is avoid adding to the waste paper.
The collapse of the USSR in 1991 broke the frame. It seems to have set the comrades of the Faction rethinking on many issues, and helped to generate the tension inside LO which led to the expulsion of the comrades now in VDT.
Friday 7 November: To another meeting which indicates something of a ferment of ideas on the French left, and the possibility of some revolutionary unity or even moves towards a new class-struggle workers’ party.
A dissident group of the Communist Party, the Gauche Communiste, is strong in the working-class suburb of Aubervillers, northern Paris, and has invited various Trotskyist groups to join it on the platform at a meeting celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The leaflet for the meeting carries a classic revolutionary photograph with Trotsky restored to the place from which, for years, he was painted out in versions circulated by the Communist Parties.
There are 350 people at the meeting, mostly political activists, we think. The atmosphere is very friendly and comradely. VDT’s calls for revolutionary unity and a new workers’ party get much applause — and there’s also applause for criticisms of Lutte Ouvriere when the chair explains that they were invited but pulled out when they heard that VDT would be involved too.
The VDT speaker, Gerard Barthelemy, pulls no punches in his criticism of the Jospin government and the Communist Party’s participation in it. The Gauche Communiste reply only that they think it better to be in a big party like the CP to promote the broad ideas of communism in the working class. Another Trotskyist speaker emphasises that Stalinism was the opposite of communism, and that the CPs’ identification of “communism” with Stalinism caused immense harm. The Gauche Communiste do not try to deny this.
Many political debates remain to be resolved. Whether “anti-Maastrichtism” is a diversion, or should instead be central to left-wing agitation, is one of them. What’s important, though, is that the possibilities of debating them seriously — and meanwhile organising joint action on the other issues where there is broad agreement — are better than for many years.
Carl Hornsey and Martin Thomas